The horse pictured is my horse Lakota. I purchased her from a novice rider as an 8-year-old horse. The first time I put the snaffle bit in her mouth, she chewed heavily on it, tossed her head up and down continuously, pulled against it, and seemed to do everything she could think of to try and escape it.
When I start a horse, or restart a horse, I always complete the early ridden work without a bit. We ride in a rope halter, hackamore (handmade rawhide), side-pull, or a bosal depending on the horse. It is my goal to get the horse responding softly in all of the foundational riding exercises before TRANSITIOINING into a snaffle bit.
I recently road in a clinic with a clinician who was relatively new to me. I brushed the surface of some of his work online, and audited a clinic of his for an hour or two previously, and felt there may be some benefit to me for riding in his clinic. I paid extra for a small group lesson prior to the clinic and brought two horses. One horse to work in the lesson and one to work in the clinic. I rode my young filly during the lesson portion. She rode wonderfully in her rope halter and I explained to the clinician that we are in our early rides outside of the round pen and working on steering exercises at home. As we worked through some typical foundational exercises, such as controlling the hindquarters, it was not surprising that he had different ideas and methods than what we typically do. With an open mind, I attempted to retrain my brain for a period of time to try the exercises he asked of us to examine the benefits for myself.
During the clinic portion of our evening, I rode my 10-year-old gelding. This left my filly standing tied, unsaddled, open for another handler. The clinician approached her and asked if I minded if he used her for some groundwork demonstration. Again, keeping an open mind, I had no problem with that and felt it could do her some good. For the majority of the clinic, we worked on groundwork. It was not until after a break for dinner that we returned for a short period of time for ridden work.
As the clinician approached my filly again, knowing my saddle was put away in my trailer, I assumed he was going to demonstrate the groundwork correlations to ridden work with her again. He walked across the arena with her, grabbed a saddle, and began to saddle her. While saddling her, he asked if I minded if he rode her. Knowing there was not much time left in the clinic, knowing that he saw me riding her earlier in her rope halter, knowing that he spoke with me earlier about her current level of training, and knowing that he is a well-known and successful rider and trainer, I gave him permission. I continued working with my gelding and glanced over my shoulder to see him working a bit into her mouth. From across the arena I said, “She’s never had a bit in her mouth.” To which he replied, surprised, “Well why not?!” As I attempted a short explanation, he continued to bit her as if my explanation did not matter to him. On the verge of debate, my manners and character got the better of me as I felt like debating was not my place. The riders and spectators paid to see him as a clinician, not to hear he and I debate our opinions on starting horses. He had his mind made up that he was riding her in a bit. As he rode, I cringed as I saw her mouth gaping open, his hands pulling up, over, and all over the place as he attempted to push and pull her around into what he considered a “connected” frame, steer her, back her up…
As I said, during his clinic, I did not feel it was my place to talk over him and debate with him, defending and explaining the reasons why I start my horses without a bit and systematically TRANSITION them into a bit. But here, this is my blog, and I can write about whatever I want. I felt like this was a good place to explain the “why” and the “how.”
All of the groundwork I do with horses at my barn, is set up to mirror ridden work. Groundwork is done in a halter. The cues and directives utilized in groundwork with the halter and lead rope, feel and mean the same thing as the cues and directives utilized with the reins during ridden work. A world renowned horseman and friend of mine insists that, “You don’t ask the question, until your horse knows the answer.” The groundwork exercises build on each other in a way that supports this statement.
So, if your horse learns everything on the ground in a halter first, why on Earth would we jump on their back and throw a bit in their mouth expecting them to know how to respond to it? Instead, I keep the halter on for first rides and change only one variable at a time as we progress. When it is time to transition into a bit, I make it a step by step process, again changing only one variable at a time. With the horse pictured, this was her first day working with a bit. On the first day, I keep all variables the same, except for the addition of the headstall and bit. Notice the reins are still connected to the halter. This is step 1. Can the horse ride, steer, and move as softly and freely as before, while simply carrying a bit in her mouth? After this is mastered we continue in both the rope halter and headstall with bit, as we add a small soft pre-cue with the reins and bit, quickly followed by the halter and lead rope feel that the horse is used to. We work through the ridden exercises from the first step to the current step making sure that at each step, the horse has transferred the response from each halter and lead rope cue to each rein and bit cue. Once every response is mastered from the ridden work step 1 to current ridden work step, the halter and lead rope are removed and the horse has smoothly and easily transitioned into a bit.
If you have questions about how I do this, or would like to voice your opinions, I welcome feedback. Please reach out to me via my contact page.
I am a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), who has taken my knowledge in Applied Behavior Analysis, and the methodology of expert horse trainers, to create an Equine training program that is anything but average. Working with my own horses has led me to discover my passion for not just training horses, but practicing quality horsemanship. For the best interest of the horses, I hope to spread this interest in quality horsemanship.